Microsoft is returning to the skies this month with Microsoft Flight, the first entry in the series since 2006 and the franchise's first venture into the free-to-play business model. The game is due out on February 29, and gamers can pick up a $20 expansion pack on launch day.
GameSpot caught up with Microsoft Flight executive producer Joshua Howard this week, who said the game has the tricky task of balancing deep gameplay for simulation fans and accessibility for newcomers.
The discussion also hits upon feedback gathered from the game's ongoing beta, why the development team chose a Hawaiian destination for Microsoft Flight, and how there are currently no plans to bring Kinect support to the game.
GameSpot: Simulators--in all genres--can often be pretty inaccessible. Microtransaction-based games like Microsoft Flight try for total pick-up-and-play fun. How does Microsoft Flight balance this?
"The game has been tuned to be challenging but still fun. And, it doesn't completely overwhelm you with details so that you can't possibly succeed."
Joshua Howard: The game has been tuned to be challenging but still fun. And, it doesn't completely overwhelm you with details so that you can't possibly succeed. All through the product, from the implementation of the mouse to the way the missions have been developed...the tutorial, the flight assist, we're really trying to keep an eye toward 'What is it going to take to let a completely inexperienced noobie come into the experience and have fun?' But also allow that super experienced person to come in, make a couple of changes to settings, and have a really deep experience that they're going to be surprised by.
GS: What kind of feedback information have you gathered from the beta?
JH: We've had really good feedback on all sides. You run a beta and you ask your users to tell you what they think, and then they do. And that can be a really enlightening and exciting part of the process. We've had feedback along a variety of lines. We've had feedback from what we would think of as our new audience; that is, the folks who aren't traditional hardcore flight simulators, who really enjoyed how easy it is to get in. And they were surprised they were able to be successful in the way they were.
At the same time, we had feedback from the hardcore folks who said 'Why are you bothering with the tutorial? I just want to get right in and go.' But once those users realized that it actually doesn't take too long to get in, make some changes, and get the experience you want. We also found that some of the hardcore users were not realizing there was as hardcore a simulator as there was...that in some sense, they were being turned off by how easy to use the product was. While easy to use is part of our vision for the game, we didn't want that "simmer" to think that this product was less than something they were interested in. So we made some changes to how we message how the flight assists work. And the tuning and tweaking of this messaging is one of the things the beta helped us with.
GS: Why the Hawaiian destination?
JH: We knew from the beginning that we wanted to build a product that had a fairly universal appeal, so you say 'What are areas of the world that people internationally might understand, as opposed to a North American-centric audience?' And there are a few locations that pop up. Then we said 'What's going to really maximize what we're doing well right now...our scenery and weather?' The team settled on Hawaii as something that nicely met all of these conditions of being an internationally recognized place with a nice variety of terrain, from jungles and mountains to beaches and lava pits. Also, it's an area that has a lot of different weather. It has storms and low clouds, beautiful sunny days, and beautiful sunrises and sunsets. That all works really well.
"You can actually fly across the coast and say 'Wow, I stayed at that hotel and that's actually what that hotel looked like.'"
We modeled all of the main islands on the chain, and we're using appropriate aircraft data from every single airport and every single beacon that's actually on the island. I don't expect most users to know this or even to really care, but it's the kind of thing we do as a team to say 'Hey, we're really going to try to be authentic about this.' From a pilot level, there's a lot of authenticity there. But even just from the things I'm going to see and experience, we don't necessarily model every single building in every single place. We do use data...satellite imagery, a variety of different sources to make sure that we've chosen key architecture. You can actually fly across the coast and say 'Wow, I stayed at that hotel and that's actually what that hotel looked like.'
GS: How powerful must a player's PC be to run Microsoft Flight?
JH: With Microsoft Flight we've done a tremendous amount of work to broaden the hardware that it's going to work well off. On a nice high-end machine, you set all the settings to high, and it becomes really, really beautiful. But while there are a lot of people willing to do the top end, we wanted to make sure this product worked on a much broader variety of hardware. For the first time in the legacy of this franchise, we've really broadened the attack surface of hardware that it will run on. At the low end, on low settings, which are still pretty...not as pretty as high settings, but still pretty and very playable, can be on a machine three to four years old. Instead of launching a title that on the day it launched it's already stronger than the strongest PC on the market, Microsoft Flight has a much broader range of hardware availability.
GS: Microsoft hasn't been overly specific about the missions in the game. What's an example of a mission that a player might take on?
JH: Hawaii features a variety of missions, from story-based missions to more replayable activities. Some missions are landing challenges, and these are when you have an airplane and you are coming into an approach on a runway. Level one of the landing challenge will be very straightforward; level two is a little more difficult, level three, four. As you proceed, we're going to throw more weather at you; we're going to throw poor visibility at you; much more wind.
These are replayable missions that you can get better at in nice bite-sized pieces. We also have narrative-based missions. One of my favorites is a mission where you happen to be out flying around when you hear that a kayaker has been lost somewhere on the coast, and you're being enlisted by the rescue operation to help. They're feeding you data as you're flying along the coast on how the rescue is going. You don't know where on the coast this kayaker is going to end up. So as you're flying, you need to fly low enough to keep an eye out but not so low that you crash into the cliffs. When you finally find the kayaker, you land, get up to shore, bring him aboard, and then you fly back. And you feel like you're part of this thing that's bigger because you were part of this search-and-rescue effort. We also have missions that are more standard; deliver this cargo, maybe of chickens, to another airport. But be careful when you do it because if you fly crazy, they're not going to be very happy with you.
GS: Microsoft has said before that all first-party Xbox 360 games will use the Kinect in some way, and with the Kinect SDK out for PC just this month, are there plans to integrate the Kinect into MS Flight?
JH: There's nothing that we're talking about at this point. There's a lot of cool stuff on the horizon...nothing about Kinect that we're ready to talk about now.
GS: Microsoft Flight will support keyboard and mouse, an Xbox 360 controller, and many flight sticks, how else can gamers play the title?
JH: There are lots of other more specialized hardware options. We think we've done a good job to support a bunch of them. We'll add support over time if it's necessary, whether that's your pedals or more sophisticated flight sticks or throttles...USB devices. Even if the system doesn't know your device right off the bat, you can use our control mapping scheme to connect your device to the game and keep it going.
GS: How will multiplayer work in Microsoft Flight?
JH: We support multiplayer sessions for up to 16 people. It's a very simple system of saying, 'I want to play multiplayer.' It's a very simple system compared to what players might have seen in the past. You can host a session or join a session, and other people show up. When I play in the office and when I play at home, I have myself set up so I'm always in multiplayer, which means every once in a while, another user will be randomly matched up with me and I'll be flying around and I'll be seeing other airplanes in the sky. And they might be doing one mission, and I'm doing another. And because it's a Live title, I can send invites across platforms, to say 'Hey, I'm in Flight. Do you want to come join me?' It's been exciting during the beta watching my buddies respond that their on their Xboxes and they see me playing the Flight beta. It's nice to see that infrastructure work.